She keeps asking what he does even though it’s obvious he’s exhausting all of the permutations of the nouns and gerunds he’s already listed on his profile, rehashing clipped versions of what he’s already typed in their email exchanges. She says that the bucket of Coors Light bottles on the table between them makes her feel like she’s in an interview (“Is there a clipboard in your hands I can’t see?”) so he moves next to her in the haggis-smelling dim of the Scottish sports bar that looks like pretty much any other sports bar, that he chose because her social preferences included “low-key scenarios with a twist.”At least here, just behind the open front doors rimmed with sharp-smelling cedar (he remembers carving wood like this into ninja stars at summer camp for an impending war with a rival cabin that never came), he has a clear view of their respective vehicles – her moped with the duct-taped engine and yanked-off fuel cap, his fixed-gear Schwinn – safely shackled together to a light pole near the edge of the curb.
She gives him crap for leaving his phone on the table – “Expecting a text from tomorrow’s hussy?” – even though it’s laying screen-side-down, in silent mode. She jokes about her helmet hair and the dirt-scuzzed Doc Martens with neon laces that she uses for riding boots. “It’s a good thing you decided against the tie,” she says, “but I’m still not sure why you even considered it, Mr. Collared Shirt. I mean, we’re not working now, are we? Do you want this to feel more like work?”
He wants to look at his phone.
He hears a finance bro at the adjacent booth tell his buddy and/or likeminded client to hurry up and buy the next round of $3 whiskey shots because happy hour’s almost done. The idea of a handful of $3 whiskey shots bludgeoning his esophagus produces a sequence of satisfying images in his brain but she still has two-plus Coors Lights to finish and he’s already used one bathroom excuse.
She asks him about his latest freelance projects, if freedom from “commuter servitude” is spiritually and/or financially lucrative. For a second she reminds him of a grunged-out version of Amelia, who, before heading to class, would bitch about him sleeping through mornings, warning about “misguided safety net-ism,” and who, from the pieces of internet detritus he’s glimpsed, had several years of mixed success in the derivatives market before moving to Baltimore and being pregnant/engaged to a mixed martial artist.
“I make it work,” he says.
She asks about his gap year trip to Iceland, hiking on glaciers, the thermal springs. His summers of golf course maintenance (“I’m picturing a more angular version of Bill Murray in Caddyshack?”), where he caught the striped bass he’s holding in one of his profile pictures, the seventh grade snowboarding accident and subsequent nose job.
He doesn’t ask about her life: the hostess gig downtown, why she still rides the moped if she’s scared the engine bar will fall off, whether her own summer camp experience included the manufacture of projectiles. He assumes she wants to say something about herself, that her constant bullet points of inquiry are a cue.
She wants me to play, he says to himself, shuddering a little at the childishness of the image, to throw the same stones she’s been throwing. But he’s already vomited up so many stones, searching the years and bars for targets, that he has only one left – the one lodged firmly between his legs.
He raises his hands as if to ward off a blow.
“I see what you’re doing there,” she says, shaking her head, her smile opening naturally. “Trying to get the check. Sneaky. Not going to let you give up that easy.”
“No, it’s cool, I was stretching. A little sore from the gym.”
She tries to dig her thigh under his, asks him what his intentions are for the remainder of the night as if she’s giving him a choice, but he’s not really listening.
A few minutes slip by and a graffiti-weathered truck parks outside the bar’s delivery entrance. Several kitchen workers and the truck driver take turns unloading large boxes with the words “SPRING LAMB” printed on them, stacking piles against the building. One of the men mishandles a box, watches it explode against the pavement, a plastic-wrapped mass of lumps. The driver lets out a curse.
He doesn’t hear any of it.
There’s only a pen’s worth of bleating, the animals sniffing idly at a pair of stainless steel doors, bellies milk-full and careless as they plod in the safety of the enclosure. A horn screeches and the doors open, revealing a dimly lit corridor that smells of fresh-cut hay and something less sweet. Two dozen tagged ears lift in curiosity. The biggest male emerges from the herd, trotting headlong and determined, hooves stomping a trail in the dirt and shit. He disappears into the darkness and there’s a noise that’s loud but brief, then nothing. The rest of the herd pauses for a moment, then moves toward the corridor in a single wooly column, young, ignorant, and invincible, unfamiliar with the sound of flesh ricocheting, ninja-star-quick, against thousands of tons of whirring metal.
Chris Vola is the author of Monkeytown, a novel. His work appears in The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Collagist, and elsewhere. A former contributing books editor at The Brooklyn Rail, he lives in Manhattan and can be found at smalldrunkencog.blogspot.com.